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Devilish Delights

Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
04/24/2015 -  & April 26, 29*, May 2, 8, 9, 2015
Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd
Nichaols Phan (Tobias Ragg), Nathan Gunn (Sweeney Todd), Morgan Pearse (Anthony Hope), Cynthia Clayton (Beggar Woman), Susan Bullock (Mrs. Lovett), Kevin Ray (The Beadle), Megan Samarin (Johanna), Adam Gibbs (Bird Seller/Jonas Fogg), Jake Gardner (Judge Turpin), Scott Quinn (Adolfo Pirelli)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (Conductor)
Lee Blakeley (director), Tanya McCallin (set and costume designer), Rick Fisher (lighting designer)

S. Bullock, N. Gunn (© Lynn Lane )

My first encounter with Sweeney Todd was at a small theater in Austin, Texas, with a young cast of a handful of singing actors cleverly doubling roles and comprising the choir, accompanied by duo pianists on an uneven upright. It still made an impact, as it did in Tim Burton's sloppily-sliced film adaption, and in the much more successful and imaginative recent Broadway revival, the singers doubling as the orchestra. In those productions, it was always referred to as a "musical" but here, given Rolls Royce treatment by one of the world's great opera companies, it emerges as one of the greatest American theatrical works of any style or genre.

The single set is finely detailed but not fussy, making small metamorphoses to frame the London streets, Mrs. Lovett's shop, or Fogg's asylum. Everything is somehow sharply colorized by washed in a foggy patina, mirroring the light and dark in Sondheim's words and music.

There is no weak link in a cast headlined by the magnificent Nathan Gunn, who can sing anything. Channeling Len Cariou's original incarnation of the role, but adding creamy finesse and verismo exaggerations as needed, Gunn captures our ears and, yes, our sympathies throughout his performance. He has a stunning counterpart in Susan Bullock's Mrs. Lovett, who does the best of any performer so far in making her character likable. Sure, she's always devilishly funny, but Bullock's tender glances at Gunn and complete control over vocal nuance bring new perspectives to this odd couple.

As the other pair of would-be lovers, Morgan Pearse's Anthony and Megan Samarin's Johanna may be less multi-dimensional, but their naivety makes them charming. The surprisingly complex rhythmic repartee of their duets was easily handled, and their solo numbers showed both as fine additions to the HGO Studio artist program. Kevin Ray's sniveling Beadle and Jake Gardner's deranged Judge Turpin were performed with appropriate menace, while Scott Quinn's turn as Pirelli was delightfully sung but perhaps lacking a bit slapstick physicality. Nicholas Phan's small but important role was captivating, and his innocent delivery of "Nothing's Gonna Harm You" was a high point of the production.

While Sondheim's music works well in black-and-white piano reductions, it becomes even more wondrous in full orchestral garb. Patrick Summers relishes the scores wide array of timbres, each brought vividly to life by the excellent HGO orchestra. The large ensemble numbers give the HGO chorus plenty of opportunities to shine, and they don't disappoint. Blood-curdling screams and perfect-placed solo lines complete a flawless package.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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